2019 Best EMBAs: Joanne Neighbors, North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)

Joanne Neighbors

University of North Carolina, Kenan-Flagler Business School

A thoughtful, hard-working and good-humored leader who challenges the status quo and strives for excellence.”

Age: 38

Hometown: Pinehurst, North Carolina

Family Members: Dean Neighbors (Husband)

Fun fact about yourself: I’ve played golf since I was about 8 years old, and played on my high school varsity team. Surprisingly (or maybe not), I haven’t run into a lot of female lawyers who play golf seriously and practice law. I’m definitely not as good as I used to be, but I still hit from the middle (traditionally, “men’s”) tee boxes. As a woman, I get to hit from the “forward” (ladies’) tees for outings and scrambles, so I end up being my office “secret weapon” at annual golf outings!

Undergraduate School and Degree:

  • Bachelor of Arts, Lake Forest College, Lake Forest, Illinois – 2002
  • Juris Doctor, University of Richmond T.C. Williams School of Law – 2005

Where are you currently working? U.S. Army Forces Command, Senior Military Law Attorney for Intelligence & Investigations

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles:

  • STAR Executive MBA Project Leader (2019)
  • Supervisor Engagement Challenge Team (Headquarters, Forces Command), 2019 – Work with a selected team of Forces Command Employees to address an area of emphasis from senior leaders
  • SHRM-SCP (Certified February 2019)
  • Active Duty Army Officer (Judge Advocate General’s Corps) from January 2006 to January 2014
  • S. Army Reserve Officer (Judge Advocate General’s Corps) January 2014 to 2016
  • Military awards include the Bronze Star Medal, Meritorious Service Medal (x2), Joint Service Commendation Medal, Iraqi Campaign Medal and the Army Staff Identification Badge
  • Civilian honors include Defense Sexual Assault Advocate Certification Program Advocate Level I (D-SAACP ID: QH-5842-0367); 43rd Airlift Group Cat III Civilian of the Year (FY 2015)
  • Bar Admission: Supreme Court of the State of Illinois (2005), U.S. Supreme Court (2013)

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? UNC Kenan-Flagler offers several immersive learning opportunities, including a for-credit consulting externship called Student Teams Achieving Results (STAR). I applied and was selected as the project leader for the Executive MBA STAR Team, which includes four other Executive MBA students and a faculty advisor.

Our team was paired with Duke Energy Corporation (Charlotte, North Carolina) to assess and make recommendations on a major policy implementation strategy. While I’ve held numerous leadership roles throughout my educational and professional careers, I’ve always believed that peer leadership was a challenge because it’s not based on seniority or positional authority – no one is following you just because you’re in charge. To be effective, you have to earn the trust and confidence of your peers, and this project has given me a unique opportunity to develop as a leader. I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to work with an extraordinary corporate partner, talented teammates, and an experienced faculty advisor – each of whom has had a hand in helping me grow. The project has been academically challenging and immensely rewarding and I am incredibly proud of the research and work our team has done.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? In mid-2010, I was assigned as a Chief of Military Justice for 25th Infantry Division, as the lead prosecutor supervising an office of military prosecutors and paralegals. The best part? The assignment took me to Schofield Barracks in Oahu, Hawaii. The downside? Less than six months after I arrived on the island, our Division headquarters deployed to Camp Liberty, Iraq, and we continued military justice operations (to include trying felony-level courts-martial) for the next 13 months while the Division supports the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. I continued to oversee all military justice operations, including court cases, in both Iraq and Hawaii, ensuring that commanders and leaders had the appropriate tools to maintain military discipline in their units. Managing a prosecutorial jurisdiction split by 13 time zones was challenging enough, but we were taking indirect fire from insurgents and enemy combatants almost daily. In that year, we beat Army averages for case processing time and overall accuracy, despite the geographic, technologic and physical challenges we faced. Thankfully, our entire team returned home safely to our friends and family at the end of December 2011 for some much-needed rest!

What was your favorite MBA course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? My favorite MBA course was the one that caught my attention as a prospective student: Global Context of Business. In that course, we evaluated how cultural, social, economic, environmental, and political forces influence business decisions and operations for multinational corporations and those doing business with foreign corporations. The course taught me to evaluate tactical decision-making through a strategic lens and to consider decisions based on long-term impact and strategy. I learned that businesses cannot make decisions without considering how global forces will affect operations and how the corporate decision will impact the globe.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? UNC Kenan-Flagler’s emphasis on leadership development drew me to apply, but the choice was clear after my pre-admission visit, where I had the chance to observe a class (Professor Atul Nerkar’s Global Context of Business) and have lunch with students. Everyone – admissions staff, faculty, and students – were welcoming, engaged and genuine. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a Tar Heel.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general?  I have really enjoyed the professional development and personal growth. Above all else, I’ve enjoyed getting to know my classmates. UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Executive MBA Program encourages collaboration and collective learning, so time spent building and developing interpersonal relationships becomes a valued part of the business school experience. The Weekend Executive MBA Class of 2019 is an extraordinarily talented and diverse cohort by any measure – demographically, educationally, and experientially – and each of my classmates has had an immeasurable impact on my experience.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? It’s hard to think of a time when I was able to “juggle” everything when in reality, it’s more of a baton-pass or trade-off. One of the better examples, however, might be a few weeks ago. My husband had been traveling and was coming home on a Thursday afternoon. I had to be at school that evening after a full day of work. Somehow, I managed to get packed for the weekend and out of the house by 6 a.m. (my normal departure time), work a full day, and head up to Chapel Hill for my STAR program that evening. Wednesday night, I baked a batch of my husband’s favorite chocolate chip cookies to come home to on Thursday. By the time I got home from class Saturday evening, I was exhausted. My husband had cleaned the house and caught up on laundry. Thanks to his efforts, we were able to relax and enjoy the rest of the weekend together. There was no grand gesture or scheduling matrix involved – just a little extra effort to look out for each other.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program?  Identify stakeholders and secure their support. Whether you know it or not, the people in your life are major stakeholders in your most preciously held commodity: time. If you’re considering an executive MBA program, take a moment to consider the people who depend on you – family, friends, colleagues, and employers – and recognize how your decision impacts them. Be prepared to outline your goals and priorities, share information about the program expectations, acknowledge how the program will impact your time, and ask for their support. To successfully manage change, even the best leaders need stakeholder buy-in.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school?  The biggest myth about going back to school is that it’s simply too hard to juggle it all. Let me be clear: there are times when it doesn’t feel like a myth. Balancing family, career, and school obligations will stress relationships and test your limits, but it is not impossible. Going back to school forced me to set priorities, manage my time effectively, and lean on those around me. Without the support of my husband (who has not only been my biggest cheerleader but has made sure I haven’t dropped any of the balls I’m juggling), I wouldn’t be calling this a myth.

What was your biggest regret in business school? My biggest regret is that I came into the program with too many preconceived notions about why I was in business school. Because I was focused on developing my existing career and considering a transition to the private sector, I overlooked the entrepreneurial opportunities that UNC Kenan-Flagler offers. I never believed I could be an entrepreneur, but the courses and experiences designed to support entrepreneurship would have pushed me even further. While I enjoy the finance concentration I’ve selected, I wish I’d kept a more open mind and selected classes to expand overall my world view, including those focused on innovation and entrepreneurship.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? With such an extraordinary cohort, I admire so many of my classmates. If I had to choose one, it would be Erin McNeill. Erin’s background is in chemical engineering, but she recently pitched (and was approved) to transition into a business and market development position with Ingevity, a specialty chemical company that has a genuine focus on sustainability and ecologically-conscious solutions. She is intelligent, driven, and unwaveringly positive. Erin is passionate and energetic regarding her work. She is the type of professional woman who makes women in business look like they belong there. Above all else, Erin’s ability to balance her career, marriage, and motherhood is unparalleled – I have worked with strong women throughout my career, but few are as adept at navigating life’s twists-and-turns. At this point in my life, I see Erin’s ability to gracefully manage it all without ever breaking a sweat as more than admirable – it’s a superpower.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I realized that transitioning from military to civil service limited my leadership opportunities. As an Army lawyer, I led an office of attorneys and paralegals. By contrast, civilian attorneys in the Department of Defense provide continuity and subject-matter expertise but are rarely hold leadership roles. UNC Kenan-Flagler’s focus on leadership offered a degree program that would not only continue my leadership development, but also would make my experience more applicable to the private sector.”

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? While I don’t have a specific job or industry in mind, I go into any job setting a goal to leave the organization better off than when I started. Ultimately, my goal is to leave the workforce better off than when I started, by demonstrating that women (and, specifically, female veterans) are strong, capable leaders. I’ll know that I was successful when the world’s top organizations and most competitive industries recruit women for their leadership, dedication, and courage – women who will make their organizations stronger than they were without them. To me, there’s no better way to honor the trailblazing women who came before me than to continue their work and demonstrate the value of women in the workforce.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? I’d like my peers to remember me as someone who never backed down from a challenge and never took herself too seriously.

What are the top two items on your bucket list? To spend at least one-year living and working abroad (preferably not in a combat zone this time) and to visit every major league baseball park in the U.S.

What made Joanne such an invaluable addition to the class of 2019?

“Joanne Neighbors is a prime example of why there should be no single “type” of EMBA student.  Her background as a military lawyer is atypical and her perspective in class is invaluable. She graciously provides her viewpoint when it adds to the conversation, and she is unafraid to ask for clarity when more precision is needed. In my Analytical Tools course, she admitted the content was unfamiliar to her and then proceeded to jump in with both feet. It is this combination of humility and diligence that has earned Joanne the respect of her instructors and fellow students.

In her time in our program, Joanne has advocated for her military peers and she has stepped forward to lead her STAR consulting project. The STAR consulting externship program is especially demanding for EMBA students with full-time jobs, and Joanne’s leadership of her STAR team is exceptional. Her STAR project faculty advisor reports that Joanne’s creativity, efficiency and deft leadership style bring out the best in each of her team members.”

Adam Mersereau

Professor of Operations and Associate Dean of MBA Programs


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